What’s So Bad About Wanting What Other People Have?

Envy is a widespread sentiment, so why are most of us reluctant to admit we feel it?

The Hebrew language does not distinguish between what in English and in many other languages are two distinct sentiments: jealousy and envy. Moreover, in Hebrew “Kin’a” is sometimes a positive attribute of faith ‏(it is even said of God in the Bible that he is a jealous God‏). In the Christian world, on the other hand, neither jealousy nor envy are given any positive value: envy is, in fact, a deadly sin.

The two feelings, jealousy and envy, are different in important ways. Jealousy is the fear of losing someone we care about ‏(as when your boyfriend is flirting with the most attractive woman in the room‏). Envy, on the other hand, is wanting something owned by another ‏(his Rolex, her slim figure, their country house, his promotion, her celebrity, or, worse, all of these together‏).

As Aristotle succinctly put it: Envy is pain at the good fortune of others. ‏(Aristotle, “Rhetoric,” Bk II, Chapter 10.‏) Interestingly enough, although envy is a widespread sentiment, it is rarely acknowledged. I do not know anyone who, in a dinner conversation, would confess to being envious of his neighbor, colleague or friend ‏(but could definitely confess to being chronically angry, sad, or anxious‏). More exactly, envy is what we impute to others, never to ourselves. Unlike many negative emotions, envy is mute.

What the Hebrew language cannot help us identify is the fact that in Christian culture, the two sentiments of jealousy and envy do not have the same moral status. “Othello,” the classic source for pondering jealousy and envy, is very clear. Othello kills his beloved Desdemona out of jealousy, but remains until the end morally superior to Iago, who lies, tricks and cheats out of sheer envy of him. “Othello,” then, shows very clearly that jealousy does not undermine the integrity of one’s moral character, probably because jealousy wants to preserve a relationship, even if on a proprietary basis.

Envy, on the other hand, is a corrosive acid of social relations. It was, as the story of Cain and Abel reminds us, the very first cause of fraternal murder. In Shakespeare, envy is the greatest evil, far more destructive than wrath, greed or sloth, three other deadly sins. But if envy is indeed evil, what makes it so? Guy de Maupassant’s “The Necklace” is a stunning short story about Madame Mathilde Loisel and her husband, Charles. Mathilde always imagined herself in a high social position. However, she has nothing and marries a low-salaried clerk who tries his best to satisfy her dreams of respectability and glamour. After many efforts, he is able to obtain two invitations to the Ministry of the Public Instruction party. Her husband uses the money he was saving and gives Mathilde 400 francs to buy a suitable dress for the occasion. But Mathilde is still unhappy, since she has no jewels to wear with it. The husband suggests she buy roses to adorn the dress, yet she prefers to borrow a necklace from her friend, Madame Jeanne Forestier. Mathilde picks out her fanciest diamond necklace and wears it at the party.

At the end of the evening, Mathilde discovers that she has lost the necklace. Mathilde and her husband look everywhere, but the necklace is not to be found. Mortified, they take out large loans to buy a diamond necklace similar in shape and beauty to the one that was lost. They bring the necklace back to Jeanne. It takes them 10 years of hard work to come up with the 36,000 francs necessary to pay them back. In the process, they have become poor and socially downgraded.

One day, Mathilde takes a walk, remembering the night when the necklace was lost. Suddenly she sees Madame Forestier, who at first does not recognize her, so changed is Mathilde. Mathilde confesses to her that 10 years before, she had lost the necklace and had spent the last decade working to pay the debt she incurred to replace it. Stunned, Mme. Forestier tells Mathilde that the necklace she had borrowed was a fake and that it was worth at most 500 francs. The form of the short story − more than that of the novel − often works both at the thematic level ‏(what the story is about‏), and at the level of the allegory − allegory being an indirect use of a story for other purposes, moral or illustrative, yet less easily decipherable than a parable.

At the thematic level, the story is about the kind of envy that is fostered by consumer societies that are based on the democratic promise of equality through material objects. Mathilde and Jeanne come from a similar background, but do not marry the same kind of man, and thus do not belong to the same social class. Yet, a beautiful dress and necklace will make Mathilde the equal of Jeanne, even if for one night.

Envy is, then, as Alexis de Tocqueville remarked in his “Democracy in America,” the chief emotion of egalitarian societies. Put differently, envy is the emotion that quietly protests against inequality. Mathilde’s enviousness would not be possible if she had not thought herself to be as worthy and deserving as the women who were richer, better dressed and socially more prominent than she is. Envy in that sense is the chief emotion of democratic and unequal societies, reminding us that others’ greater luck, greater status and fortune are unjustified and even unjust.

And yet, the equality of democratic societies is an equality of rights, not an equality of talent and virtue. Anyone who has been in this world for even five minutes knows that people differ in intelligence, courage, integrity and goodness. What, then, are we to make of those cases where envy is directed at those people who are more remarkable than we are, of those cases where envy is the demand for an equality that cannot be? And why has envy more corrosive effects than anger, sloth, greed or lust? What, in short, makes envy the egalitarian emotion, the vilest emotion of all?

Shakespeare again gives us a clue in the relationship between Iago and Othello, a paradigm of envy in at least two respects. Iago ‏(and other characters in the play‏) refers to Othell as “the Moor” − black-skinned. This implies that Iago is constantly aware that Othello is a stranger. Othello does not belong to Iago’s group, by nationality, race or social class. Moreover, if the social order had worked properly, Othello should have been assigned to a position inferior to that of Iago ‏(Othello had been a slave‏).

Othello has another characteristic: he is outstanding − in character and accomplishments. In fact, he is so remarkable that he compels even his enemies ‏(like Brabantio, Desdemona’s father‏) to admire him. Not by chance are we made, from the start of the play, into the witnesses of Desdemona’s love for him, a love inspired by the fact that she saw Othello’s “visage in his mind.” Othello subdued Desdemona’s heart by telling her stories of his suffering when he was a slave. Her love, born of compassion and admiration, has the only function of pointing to Othello’s outstanding character.

So what is the causal relationship between these two facts and Iago’s envy? Human beings seem to constitute their sense of self-worth by implicitly comparing themselves to people who are, roughly, similar or inferior to them. A middle-class, 50-year-old woman is far more likely to compare herself to ‏(and to envy‏) another 50-year-old middle-class woman than to compare herself ‏(and envy‏) a 30-year-old man. Similarly, she is more likely to envy the beauty of her neighbor than the beauty of Angelina Jolie.

We tend to construct cognitive maps in which people similar or inferior to us serve as reference points for our identity. This is why we mark some people as ‘inferior’: Their inferiority is constitutive of our own self-worth. If a stranger − someone who is not from our group − is marked as inferior ‏(a black person, say, or a Mizrahi Jew‏), and if that stranger turns out to be outstanding, s/he challenges the sturdiest basis of our sense of self-worth. An inferior-stranger poses a further challenge to self-worth because he does not enable the narcissistic play of projection and identification with one’s group.

An outstanding person from our own group can always remind us of ourselves; s/he is in many ways a narcissistic extension of ourselves. But inferior-strangers who turn out to be outstanding have, by definition, something we will never possess, and thus challenge the very possibility of narcissistic self-gratification we may have with regard to outstanding characters in our own group.

Some will rightly object that this cannot explain everything, because Iago is the only one to hate Othello with such ferocity. What remains to be explained is the trigger that transformed his envy into hatred. That trigger is to be found in the fact that Othello promoted Cassio, not Iago. I would hypothesize that what is intolerable for Iago is not the fact that he was ignored, but rather that an inferior-stranger had the power to evaluate him − a power that is usually accepted only from members of dominant groups.

Iago’s envy differs from Mathilde’s because his envy does not have a clear object. He does not wish to have Othello’s clothes or jewels. Nor does he wish Desdemona for himself. Had he loved or wanted Desdemona, his manipulations would have been morally intelligible and even acceptable. What makes Iago repulsive is that his envy has no purpose ‏(as Coleridge put it, “motiveless malignity”‏). And as Kant said: “Envy is a propensity to view the well-being of others with distress, even though it does not detract from one’s own. [Envy] aims, at least in terms of one’s wishes, at destroying others’ good fortune.” ‏(Kant, “The Metaphysics of Morals,” 6:459‏).

I would go further than Kant: envy is a “disinterested” form of evil, in the sense that it does not want to secure anything. In its pure form, envy has no object; it is simply aimed at the very existence of another rather than at what s/he has. Envy hates the nobility, courage and intelligence possessed by another. In that sense, it does not aim to increase one’s well-being; only to deny someone else his/her own outstanding character.

If I stole your money to buy myself an expensive diamond, this would be a case of interested, rational evil: I harm your interest to increase mine. If I maliciously gossip and tarnish your reputation in order to advance myself in the organization we both work in, this is again a case of rational strategy and self-interest. But if I maliciously tarnish your reputation, not because I will gain anything by it but because I envy you for being outstanding, for having the courage, integrity and intelligence I will always lack, it is a disinterested, pure evil.

Some theological conceptions ‏(Augustine, for example‏) define evil as the absence of the good. But envy is an even deeper evil, because it signals not the absence of the good, but the abhorrence of the good. This is indeed the reason for Iago’s famous final silence. When pressed for an explanation of his actions before he is arrested, Iago says: “Demand me nothing: what you know, you know. From this time forth I never will speak word.” The line has baffled commentators. Why does Iago remain silent? I can now translate this question as: Why is envy mute?

Maupassant’s story contains an answer. Envy is a fruitless labor to pay for a fake necklace made of paste diamonds, to get even with someone who owes us nothing. Worse: it is a fruitless labor to reimburse a debt we do not owe. As an emotion, envy has a hollow center. It works around an empty inner space. The profound message offered by Maupassant’s allegorical story is this one: Envy turns us into our own inferiors.

What starts in Maupassant’s story as a fear of inferiority, becomes a real, tangible inferiority. Mathilde, we are told, worked so hard to pay off her debt that her hands became those of a working woman, her hair unkempt, her dresses old and worn out. Mathilde became what she dreaded being in the first place, a woman of low extraction.

Envy, thus, is not only the fear of being or seeming inferior; it is, in Maupassant’s crisp allegory, the emotion that turns us into that actual inferior human being. This is because envy is paradoxical. It hates what is outstanding in someone else, but it is an acknowledgement of their superiority and thus of our own inferiority. To envy is to feel, tangibly, concretely, one’s own inferiority and to become, tangibly, that inferior human being. As Iago says [of Cassio]: “He hath a daily beauty in his life that makes me ugly.” Iago does not say “that makes me feel ugly”; instead, he says that makes me ugly. Iago expresses the self-defeating nature of envy, which, in being felt, actually turns us into inferior people.

Contrary to many emotions, which demand expression, envy remains mute, for, if expressed, it proves what it dreads most: the ugliness of one’s soul.